Fears Hover Over Plan to Collect Data on All Cambodians

Every Cambodian will be assigned a 10-digit identification number under which information from various government departments, as well as the private sector, will be collected in a central database, Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced on Thursday.

The new system—set to be rolled out in 2019—would help people set up bank accounts, prove their identity and aid authorities in maintaining public order, according to the ministry. The initiative is expected to cost at least $40 million.

Police officers attend a meeting at the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Concerns were quickly raised over the system being used as a surveillance mechanism against government critics, and similar initiatives overseas have sparked debates over potentially massive breaches of privacy.

“Cambodia needs to create a list of registration data to ensure that one person has one identity,” Mr. Kheng said during a meeting in Phnom Penh.

Yin Malyna, a deputy director-general at the ministry’s identification department, told reporters that the plan—estimated to cost between $40 million and $50 million to implement—would have both positive and negative effects, though he only elaborated on the potential benefits.

“The positive effects will be huge for our people, first in providing effective services and [making it] easy for our people to show their identity,” Mr. Malyna said.

The collected information would also help government departments undertake public policy analyses, he said.

Mao Chandara, the department’s director-general, said Cambodians would begin receiving their ID numbers in 2019, and they will “use this code from birth to death.”

“We will make an effort to collect citizen data to be managed in one system, and this system will become a data center,” General Chandara said. “This center will be used by public services as well as the private sector.”

However, Sam Chankea, a spokesman for rights group Adhoc, expressed concern about the system.

“We support the initiative, but we are also concerned about surveillance against people who have criticized the government,” he said.

Abroad, concerns over similar systems have centered around the potential for sensitive and private data to be exposed by hackers.

In 2010, a planned $5.5 billion national identity card scheme in the U.K. was scrapped by the new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, to reverse what the parties called “the substantial erosion” of civil liberties over several years.

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